The student news site of Adlai E. Stevenson High School


The student news site of Adlai E. Stevenson High School


The student news site of Adlai E. Stevenson High School


Palatably Painful

Staffer examines institutional and cultural change necessary for healthier, more equitable approaches to “trauma” in higher education

On March 16, 2021, when Robert Aaron Long killed eight people—including six Asian women—in the Atlanta spa shootings, citing his desire to “eliminate” a “sexual temptation,” I was in eighth grade. At that time, to cope with COVID-19 isolation, I liked taking walks around my tiny neighborhood. Except that day, my mother stopped me at the door. “Yuanyuan, jin tian bie chu qu.” Fiona, don’t go outside today. “Wai mian you—” Outside there is—she pauses, struggling for the English words, struggling to say it to my fourteen-year-old self. “Hate crime.” Despite the distance between suburban Chicago and Georgia, at that moment we both realized how precarious our very existence in this country had always been. 

From this experience, I learned from the young age of fourteen that I needed to be more resilient, optimistic, and take it upon myself to eradicate racism everywhere.

This last sentence is as completely and nauseatingly false as the first part is completely and horribly true. But it serves as an example of the contemporary “trauma essay”: a trend in which high school seniors churn their most gut-wrenching experiences into digestible, feel-good stories in their personal statements for college admissions to show character growth. American higher education’s “holistic admissions” system emphasizes uniqueness and individuality; consequently, the idea that students may be spinning clichéd sob stories about dead parents in order to get into college often spurs calls for more “authenticity” in individual applications. Pragmatically, however, there are imminent consequences for not fitting the mold of the “ideal” applicant. The “trauma essay” is just another piece of the puzzle, a reflection of how our institutions—the established customs, organizations, or otherwise impersonal cultural constructs that govern our lives—commodify suffering to reinforce existing systems of power.

Intrinsic in the “trauma essay” phenomenon is a deeply problematic principle: Suffering must ultimately make you a better person, and therefore personal growth is the only acceptable outcome of such adversity. Trauma essays about mental health, for example, routinely force positive endings that play into stigmas, because mental illness is often synonymized with incomprehensibility or weakness in popular culture. This implicitly suggests that these expressions of distress are somehow unnatural consequences to, say, abjectly inhumane circumstances like rape, child abuse, and war. Consequently, this has led to some colleges treating mental illness as a dangerous liability that could cost them money and reputation in direct conflict with federal civil rights laws. Despite recent advances in mental health awareness both culturally and institutionally, only 40 percent of college students thought their school was “doing enough” to support student mental health in 2022. These institutions’ double standard concerning mental health sends a clear message: Your suffering is only acceptable in the public sphere when it aligns with a social standard of what’s palatable, and not as its own experience. 

In a culture where we are called “soft” for having actually “authentic” emotions, victims are shamed for their reactions to trauma while perpetrators are exonerated of obligation to solve the root problems. Shifting this responsibility is especially problematic in trauma essays about an individual’s relationship with broader societal issues like racism. (Writing about one’s experience with race has been implicitly encouraged for applicants of color after the Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action in June 2023.) The close relationship between colleges’ desire to see resilience in their applicants and the glorification of suffering as leading to traits like resilience sets up a perverse expectation for applicants to overcome unreasonable obstacles or solve unsolvable problems.

Sometimes, trauma “is just a sucky thing that really sucks,” as Tina Yong said in her TED Talk. The idea that a child is more deserving of admission for becoming more “resilient”—a word that has somewhat lost its original significance in becoming a stand-in for superiority of character—in the span of 650 words after a parent’s death undermines the true implications and profound pain of grief. This is a direct result of our cultural institutions’ tendency to “romanticize and sensationalize”—as written in our print issue’s editorial—horrible things into a shinier version for the public eye. The idea that I can and should tie positive character development to the hypersexualization of Asian women that led to the Atlanta spa shootings shifts the attention away from centuries of underlying, systematic marginalization. 

Additionally, for trauma to be effective as a means to an end, it must be agreeable for its intended audience—in this case, predominantly white admissions officers; in 2022, “around three fourths” of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, primarily college enrollment officials and high school counselors, were white. This pressure to perform then encourages applicants to write their lived experiences in the vocabulary of the majority culture. For example, the “smelly lunch story” trope—which airbrushes the difficulties of cultural assimilation and xenophobia into a clean-cut, universal anecdote with a “perfect” victim and a pure-evil bully—simplifies racism to an individual act of immorality by one-dimensional archetypes, allowing the audience to feel an artificial sympathy for dumpling-induced nose-wrinkling while distancing themselves from the uncomfortable responsibility to actually treat traditionally “othered” people with equal respect in the full, nuanced meaning of the concept. Combined with the narrative of minorities as inherently suffering, our culture has weaponized such suffering to absolve its perpetrators. 

Even the stance in our print issue’s editorial hinged on a huge “if”: “If colleges truly seek authenticity,” then Statesman “encourages authenticity in the college admissions process.” Given the much less idealistic reality of “authenticity” in modern society, we must shift the responsibility for change to its rightful place: the institutions that have weaponized narratives about what kind of suffering is “acceptable,” “normal,” and “rewarded.” Amongst many other comprehensive changes, news coverage must commit to truly ethical journalism through a conscious awareness and rejection of deeply entrenched media biases; the publishing industry must go beyond token representation that tends to overly focus on minorities’ pain; and colleges must recognize that “trauma” without a comfortable, predictable resolution does not negate an applicant’s worthiness for an education.

The effects of a narrow understanding of suffering in the context of its origins are demonstrated in but are not limited to the “trauma essay.” What fundamentally is a trauma essay if not quite literally how we tell stories about our pain? These stories cannot and do not occur in a vacuum, and recognizing that is the first step towards a real solution, a world in which all peoples are allowed to accurately express their truth.

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